Unfiction: Gangnam Style – Understanding Viral Music

When I started writing this, Gangnam Style had over 500m views. Chances are if you’re reading this you at least know of the phenomenon, even if you haven’t actually watched the video or managed to avoid hearing the song. That says little of the imitations too. Sufficed to say, it comes in a long line of popular songs which, for some specific reason(s), gain particular attention. In a case of self-indulgence and because it actually proves that I learnt something in my degree, I want to go into why this is the case. The reasons might be obvious, but I want to go into the complexity a little. Not so much telling you what you know, but attempting to explain that.

We’ll start with the song itself because we have to start somewhere. Now, for a song to go viral, it has to be either particularly good or particularly bad. The odd thing is because of how prominent these things inevitably become and, as is often the case, how quickly they annoy those who heard it sooner rather than later, you tend to find these both sort of happen at the same time and even with the same person.

Take Friday by Rebecca Black. I know you’ve not forgotten it, etched as it is into our brains to be recovered by scientists in the future to be used in determining how that part of our memory is as survivable as a cockroach. It is, almost objectively, really bad. The lyrics are pointless, reading more like a diary of the most averagely average teenager than something with as much meaning as a pop song that does carry much meaning (stick with me here, there’s a point in that awful sentence). The music is painfully auto-tuned and incredibly simple. There is nothing here out-standing. It is, almost objectively, really good. The lyrics are meaningful, bordering on satirical, and quick to be different in the ocean of pop; if you’re not going to write a song about love or sex, what do you write one on? The music is assertively auto-tuned, wandering out of awful territory to actually quite bearable and has a simple, but catchy hook. It is out-standing because it is different. That seems like a no-brainer of a sentence, I know

Whilst Gangnam Style on the surface is a song about “sexy ladies”, it certainly owes part of its success to most of it not being in English. Now of the 500m, how many of them speak Korean? Right, probably a few million. Maybe a few dozen. The majority will be English…or will they? The thing is, because it’s not in a major global language, for the rest of the globe it might as well be any language whatsoever! All it has to do is sound like it’s good which, to the untrained ear, why wouldn’t it? I’m confident that, let’s say a German, will have enough knowledge and ability to put together lyrics and video to understand what a “sexy lady” is. It’s a case of the difference creating indifference. “Well, I don’t understand it, but it sure sounds good.”

I could get into how it follows the simple structure of a pop song (you know, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, break, chorus-up-half-a-pitch) but that’s not the universal I want to explore. I’m sure most people were aware of that and if you weren’t I’ve just blown your mind and ruined your music collection if you try seeing it in everything you own (apart from Free Bird, which breaks that by forgetting the final chorus and having a break that lasts five minutes). No, what I want to focus on is the sound of music.

Think to yourself, what sounds are universal in understanding? A sneeze? A hiccup? A fart? I know these are all human examples, but considering we invented music, or at least the concept of it, I feel it appropriate. Particularly on the last one, you know what it is without the ability to see it. Even if you close your eyes, you still know if someone has hiccupped or sneezed because those sounds are distinctive. I want you now to hum. Hum any note/pitch you want. Then, go up two and down two from your start. Congratulations, you’ve just made your own pentatonic scale. Now what’s impressive about any scale is that anyone, anywhere, can follow it. It’s well demonstrated in the above clip and easily displays how really, we can appreciate any music made anywhere. That includes the Eurovision Song Contest. Mostly.

Okay, so the song part is covered, but what about the video? We (the people reading this) live in a world where an area not connected by the internet is wrong. We are bombarded with images, moving or not, on an hourly basis. Again, for anything to stand out it needs to be distinctive. It’s the same principle with the music and, similarly, the simplest idea (on the surface) is often the best. We don’t have enough time to memorise complex ideas with all of this bombardment happening, so simple is the way to go. I want you to think about a car advert that you fondly remember. I’m going to put good money (not really) on you thinking of the now quite-old Honda advert showing how everything inside a car is connected. Quite possibly, you’ve thought of another Honda advert in the “Power of Dreams” campaign. It was an effective campaign because, simply, people were talking about it. Awareness and all that jazz (that pun will be simultaneously clever and groan-worthy for the 1.3 people who got it).

We’ll get back on track to music though. How about some Las Ketchup? What about something different, say Weapon of Choice (really, it’s any opportunity to shoe-horn that into anything). Both highly popular videos, but with different aims which contribute to the successfulness of Gangnam Style. Las Ketchup’s creatively titled song, The Ketchup Song (and lest we not forget their immortal Christmas remix) featured such a stupidly simple dance routine that anyone from 4-90 could replicate without risk of injury (unless you actually stand up on a bar like those idiots do). If the internet has shown us anything, it’s that an awful lot of people who have access to a good quality camera have an awful lot of free time. Not all of it is spent awfully though. And where imitation is the most sincere form of flattery, you have quite a few (pretty good!) imitations of Gangnam Style. The more people embrace something, the longer it stays in our cultural memory. It’s like when you hear everyone going on about how rubbish Nickelback is, an idea propagated by the fact that so many people think they are rubbish that it fuels itself (that and their stuff is properly shit helps). But wait, there’s more!

Weapon of Choice is a great video, not just because of Christopher Walken (more like Christopher Dancen, eh, eh? Man, I wish I had made that up for myself and not completely stolen it from The Internet) but because it’s seemingly about a man dancing in an empty hotel foyer. And then he flies because it’s Christopher Walken and he can do that if he wants. It’s so crazy, but it is, ostensibly, unique. Tonally, it also fits with the music (perfectly too, it’s uncanny). This obviously overlaps with Las Ketchup and, well, pretty much any other highly popular video. I was originally going to use Firestarter (I only used Choice because I like it more) because it demonstrated the same points. You look at that video and you hear the music, or vice-versa and you go “Yup, that is a good pairing. It fits.”

So now we get back to Gangnam Style. For a video to be popular, it needs to be simple, unique and fit tonally with the song. If it isn’t yet ingrained in your memory, rewatch the video and tell me if it does this. The dance is totally ridiculous, but like the imitations have shown, easily replicated. Randomly appearing men in yellow track-suits, random thrashing about in a jacuzzi/pool, a guy thrusting over you while you’re lying down in a lift? I’m going to go with unique there. Fits tonally with the song? Well, guh. Really, the video is so ridiculous, so audacious, yet so rooted in reality that of course you’re going to remember it, rammed home because whenever you think of the video, you’ll think of the music and you can’t think of that without the video.

I like to think that’s what makes a good music video, not if it is its own thing, but if it fits seamlessly with the music so that you can’t not think about it when you just hear the music. something something cultural memory. It’s actually why I think more recent OK GO videos have lost their way, trying to be ‘whacky’, ‘crazy’ and ‘clever’ like Here It Goes Again because that was popular, seemingly forgetting that that was simple, different and fit with the song. There’s a similar issue with Lady Gaga videos too. I like to think that each new video release with her is this big event and that was true with Telephone, but then we got Born This Way which was so utterly asinine as to surely, surely, be a parody of her own style.

Now you’re probably going “But Joel, the reasons you gave for why a song and its video become popular are the same!” Funny that, eh? I’m not claiming this to be a full-proof science, nor have I included research to back up my points (this isn’t that kind of blog and hey, Google Scholar is your best friend if you’re making that point), but I would like to think that a reasonable and thought-over discussion and exploration is interesting enough. That and like I said previously, none of this is particularly startling in apparent revelations, but I do hope it’s interesting enough to get you thinking about it for a few minutes in a “Huh, well that was interesting” way. Yeah yeah, I know I’ve just spent 1700 words analysing Gangnam Style. With that much time, maybe I should do my own version of it…

And because it’s entirely related (screw it, I’d have forced a connection if I had to), R. Kelly of creating-a-music-genre fame has confirmed that his ‘hip-hopera’ “Trapped in the Closet” will be getting more episodes. Why is it relevant? It epitomises the viral song (and video) in all its stupid, stupid, fantastic glory.

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About thejgman

I am a person and do persony things! Favourite things include Mars bars, video games and, surprisingly, writing. I'm a graduate in Cultural Studies, with a focus towards all things digital and technological.
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One Response to Unfiction: Gangnam Style – Understanding Viral Music

  1. ecap2 says:

    As a keen Eurovision fan, I’m glad you gave it a mention! Now Gangnam Style’s back in my head though…

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